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Child-centered marketing causing kids to carry unhealthy food habits into adulthood

Monday, October 30, 2006 by: Dani Veracity
Tags: junk food marketing, nutrition, parental responsibility

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The next time you get up early on a Saturday morning, turn on your television to any one of the major broadcast stations or child-oriented cable networks. In between Saturday morning cartoons, you'll suddenly find yourself bombarded by commercials advertising fast food and sugary breakfast cereal and snacks -- all targeted toward children. This is what the average child is exposed to while watching their favorite cartoons, while reading kids' magazines and even while at school. Child-centric marketing has reached epidemic proportions worldwide and it's making the world population become unhealthy consumers of caffeine and other drugs at an increasingly young age.

Today, child-centered marketing equals big business. According to "Food Fight" authors Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, children influence billions of dollars worth of sales each year. To respond to companies' demand for strategies targeted specifically at children, most major advertising agencies have children's divisions and some marketing firms -- such as Kid2Kid, Kid Connection, Just Kids, Small Talk and the Gepetto Group -- focus only on children. Additionally, a number of advertising industry publications -- Selling to Kids, Marketing to Kids Report and Youth Market Alert -- have popped up across the country, ready to reveal strategies derived from child psychologists for getting children to nag their parents.

The positive side of some child psychologists being in league with ad agencies and Big Business is that we know much more about how marketing affects children. Some experts believe that brand loyalty begins as early as age 2. Additionally, we know now that successful child-directed marketing cultivates not only children's brand loyalty, but their entire outlook on life. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in "Coercion," Big-Business-shaped perspectives can sometimes have a negative effect on a child's entire life:

"The fresh neurons of young brains are valuable mental real estate to admen. By seeding their products and images early, the marketers can do more than just develop brand recognition; they can literally cultivate a demographic's sensibilities as they are formed. A nine-year-old child who can recognize the Budweiser frogs and recite their slogan (Bud-weis-er) is more likely to start drinking beer than one who can remember only Tony the Tiger yelling, 'They're great!'"

As Eric Schlosser explains in "Fast Food Nation" the now-discontinued Joe Camel ads are a perfect example of how cute or cool corporate mascots can make unhealthy products appealing or at least memorable to kids. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1991, almost all 6-year-olds living in the United States could identify Joe Camel, making him as recognizable to them as Mickey Mouse. Then, another study discovered that Camels make up one-third of all cigarettes illegally sold to minors. Is it possible that, before Joe Camel ads were discontinued, the early familiarity of children with the cool mascot remained with them as they grew up and chose whether to smoke cigarettes? This could possibly be the case because, again, some experts believe that people start forming brand loyalty as young as 2 years of age.

With this in mind, current "cute" mascots for harmful products seem even more dangerous. According to the 1999 CME KidCom Ad Traction Study II, surveyed children said their favorite television ad was for Budweiser, beating runners-up Taco Bell, Pepsi and Nike. Some concerned experts and parents wonder if playful, fun ads for Budweiser and other alcoholic drinks prompt children into trying alcohol at any early age and, once they start, keeping up a drinking habit.

If you're having a hard time believing that child-directed marketing predisposes kids to substance abuse, then consider caffeine for a moment. Though we don't often think of it this way, caffeine is nevertheless a drug -- a stimulant, just as cocaine and methamphetamine are stimulants. Soft drinks are a major source of caffeine and sugar for children; a 12-ounce can of cola has as much caffeine as an average cup of coffee. According to the 1999 Center for Science in the Public Interest study entitled "Liquid Candy," the average teenage boy drinks approximately 20 ounces of soft drinks per day, and the average teenage girl drinks about 12 ounces. This means that a 14-year-old boy may be consuming more caffeine each day than his father, who drinks only a cup of coffee each morning.

However, even more disturbingly, about one-fifth of American one- and two-year-olds drink soda. This means that toddlers are consuming a potentially dangerous stimulant before they're even old enough to eat many adult foods. In Food Politics, Marion Nestle again links toddlers' consumption of soft drinks to marketing -- but this time to parent-directed marketing. "Because the overall strategy is to establish brand loyalty as early in a consumer's life as possible," Nestle writes, "marketing efforts begin with the parents of young infants. Some soft drink companies go so far as to license their logos to makers of infant-feeding bottles."

Caffeine addiction often starts at an early age; expert sees substance-abuse-type symptoms in young caffeine drinkers

Scientists are still unsure of excessive caffeine consumption's effects on young, growing minds and bodies because "no one would dare administer high amounts of caffeine to a child in a controlled study," writes "Caffeine Blues" author Stephen Cherniske. However, Cherniske believes that many cola-drinking children already exhibit symptoms of substance abuse addiction. Like adult cocaine addicts, young soda drinkers seek the "rush" associated with consuming a stimulant. Then, also like adult addicts, when the caffeine-induced heightened state begins to disappear, children and teenagers often seek another can or glass of soda, so that they don't feel the "drop." As Cherniske explains, research studies show that children experience the same caffeine withdrawal side effects that adults experience:

"Nevertheless, studies have found that the caffeine withdrawal effects experienced by children are very similar to those experienced by adults: fatigue, headache, malaise, anxiety, and depression. And these effects can begin after a very short period without a caffeine "hit," even as simple as a child missing their lunchtime or after-school soft drink."

It's dangerous to have a nation full of young caffeine addicts. The caffeine and high sugar content of these drinks has prompted many adults to take action. Coca-Cola is already listening somewhat to consumers' demands. According to "Food Fight," the company "announced a change in school contracts and has created 'Project Mother,' a program to develop dairy and fortified nutritional drinks for children and teenagers. Opponents to cow's milk consumption say that Project Mother still does not adequately address children's health care concerns. For more information on the dangers associated with cow's milk consumption, explore articles and news summaries on dairy products on WebSeed.

Rather than giving in to your child's desires for "liquid candy," talk to him or her about the images used in soft drink commercials. Explain that they give the impression it's cool to drink soft drinks because soft drink companies want people to buy their products, not because drinking them actually makes you cool and certainly not because they're healthy for you. Teach them healthy alternatives to soft drinks, like iced herbal tea. You can make it all at once, ice it and then put it in a sports bottle to make your own on-the-go healthy drink for your child's lunchbox.

The experts speak on direct-to-consumer marketing

Marketing of caffeine and other stimulants to children

Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children (SCEC), a coalition of many child advocacy organizations, believes that marketing to children is exploitive and harmful to the nation's youth. SCEC notes that the United States regulates advertising to children less than most other democratic nations.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 117

Exposure of the very young to innovative marketing undoubtedly initiates memes (Schrage 1988). These are fragments of thought that remain burrowed in the mind, and -- like genes -- tend to replicate themselves, and mutate from one host to another.
Aspartame: Is It Safe? by H.J. Roberts MD, page 189

Children are valuable consumers, affecting billions of dollars in sales each year. Food marketing directed at children, almost exclusively for unhealthy foods, is as sophisticated as marketing gets. There are books, advertising journals, and conferences describing how to best market to children. It is no surprise that we have a nation of children consuming record amounts of sugar, soft drinks, fast foods, and snack foods.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 10

Major ad agencies now have children's divisions, and a variety of marketing firms focus solely on kids. These groups tend to have sweet-sounding names: Small Talk, Kid Connection, Kid2Kid, the Gepetto Group, Just Kids, Inc. At least three industry publications -- Youth Market Alert, Selling to Kids, and Marketing to Kids Report -- cover the latest ad campaigns and market research. The growth in children's advertising has been driven by efforts to increase not just current, but also future, consumption. Hoping that nostalgic childhood memories of a brand will lead to a lifetime of purchases, companies now plan "cradle-to-grave" advertising strategies. They have come to believe what Ray Kroc and Walt Disney realized long ago -- a person's "brand loyalty" may begin as early as the age of two. Indeed, market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name.
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 44

A number of organizations, publications, meetings, and marketing businesses exist to help companies sell products to children.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 115

The real intention of target marketing to children and babies, however, goes deeper. The fresh neurons of young brains are valuable mental real estate to admen. By seeding their products and images early, the marketers can do more than just develop brand recognition; they can literally cultivate a demographic's sensibilities as they are formed. A nine-year-old child who can recognize the Budweiser frogs and recite their slogan (Bud-weis-er) is more likely to start drinking beer than one who can remember only Tony the Tiger yelling, "They're great!"
Coercion by Douglas Rushkoff, page 197

The discontinued Joe Camel ad campaign, which used a hip cartoon character to sell cigarettes, showed how easily children can be influenced by the right corporate mascot. A 1991 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly all of America's six-year-olds could identify Joe Camel, who was just as familiar to them as Mickey Mouse. Another study found that one-third of the cigarettes illegally sold to minors were Camels. More recently, a marketing firm conducted a survey in shopping malls across the country, asking children to describe their favorite TV ads. According to the CME KidCom Ad Traction Study II, released at the 1999 Kids' marketing Conference in San Antonio, Texas, the Taco Bell commercials featuring a talking Chihuahua were the most popular fast food ads. The kids in the survey also liked Pepsi and Nike commercials, but their favorite television ad was for Budweiser.
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 44

But personal responsibility is sometimes not enough. The country waited many years hoping for smokers to stop and for parents to protect their children from the tobacco companies. It was a good try, but insufficient, so local and national leaders stepped in with decisive action. High taxes have been levied on cigarettes, smoking has been prohibited in public places, and strong sanctions have been imposed for the marketing and sales of cigarettes to minors.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 51

Soft drinks and caffeine

Coca-Cola, to its credit, announced a change in school contracts and has created "Project Mother," a program to develop dairy and fortified nutritional drinks for children and teenagers. A Coke spokesperson says that the company also plans to change its marketing strategy. Coke, with its marketing domination, can take a step in the right direction if soft drinks can be replaced with healthier drinks.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 175

Of particular concern is the fact that children are often the targets of marketing activities designed to promote the consumption of caffeine-containing foodstuffs such as cola-based soft drinks and chocolate, and that increasing numbers of children may be consuming caffeine in sufficient quantities to be detrimental to health. It is noteworthy, for example, that a 375 ml [twelve ounce] can of one of the more popular cola drinks has a caffeine content approximately equivalent to an average-sized cup of instant coffee.
Caffeine Blues by Stephen Cherniske MS, page 279

Specific brand endorsements and marketing strategies, often found in exclusive soft drink contracts, may influence children's sugary beverage consumption patterns and increase the risk for decay.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 171

"Liquid Candy," a 1999 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, describes who is not benefiting from the beverage industry's latest marketing efforts: The nation's children. In 1978, the typical teenage boy in the United States drank about seven ounces of soda every day; today he drinks nearly three times that amount, deriving 9 percent of his daily caloric intake from soft drinks. Soda consumption among teenaged girls has doubled within the same period, reaching an average of twelve ounces a day. A significant number of teenage boys are now drinking five or more cans of soda every day. Each can contains the equivalent of about ten teaspoons of sugar. Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Dr Pepper also contain caffeine. These sodas provide empty calories and have replaced far more nutritious beverages in the American diet. Excessive soda consumption in childhood can lead to calcium deficiencies and a greater likelihood of bone fractures. Twenty years ago, teenage boys in the United States drank twice as much milk as soda; now they drink twice as much soda as milk. Soft drink consumption has also become commonplace among American toddlers. About one-fifth of the nation's one- and two-year-olds now drink soda.
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, page 55

As part of this effort, soft drink companies seek consumers among younger and younger children. They approach this task quite systematically ... Because the overall strategy is to establish brand loyalty as early in a consumer's life as possible, marketing efforts begin with the parents of young infants. Some soft drink companies go so far as to license their logos to makers of infant-feeding bottles.
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 19

There is no doubt that the "rush" induced by these products is harmful to children. Caffeine affects their brains and growing bodies in ways that have never been evaluated because no one would dare administer high amounts of caffeine to a child in a controlled study. Tragically, there is no safety data, and the marketing campaigns that flood the airwaves are reprehensible in light of caffeine's well-known negative effects on the body and mind.
Caffeine Blues by Stephen Cherniske MS, page 300

Soft drinks, of course, constitute just one example of industry marketing to children, but the health effects of this product are becoming increasingly well documented. Thus, a good starting place for nutrition advocacy for children is to encourage consumption of water, juices and low-fat milk but to discourage consumption of sodas and sweetened fruit drinks, except as occasional desserts. In what must be considered a courageous move in this direction, the USDA braved the wrath of the soft drink industry when it pictured "soda pop" at the tip of its 1999 Food Guide Pyramid for children aged two to six.
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 217

Remember also that there are two aspects to any drug addiction. First is the reward sought by the user. In this case, it is the "buzz" of adrenaline, the heightened caffeine state that is so often confused with energy. The second aspect is the desire to avoid the pain of withdrawal. It's hard to say which is more motivating, but one thing is certain: Children easily fall prey to the addictive properties of soft drinks and their relentless marketing campaigns -- a juggernaut that seems virtually unstoppable.
Caffeine Blues by Stephen Cherniske MS, page 291

Coke's main competitor, Pepsi-Cola, has organized grassroots marketing programs, an entertainment Web site, and a national promotion through MTV, the music cable-television channel, to convince elementary school children that its soft drinks are "cool."
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 188

Of course, soft drink manufacturers will never admit to a marketing strategy of addicting children to caffeine in order to create lifelong customers.
Caffeine Blues by Stephen Cherniske MS, page 282

Among these are offering beverages with the health of children the prime goal, becoming political and urging companies to stop marketing to children, finding ways to replace money now generated from soft drinks, developing media literacy programs, and encouraging legislators to be active in protecting the diets of children. There are also avenues for action specific to soft drinks.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 102

Nevertheless, studies have found that the caffeine withdrawal effects experienced by children are very similar to those experienced by adults: fatigue, headache, malaise, anxiety, and depression. And these effects can begin after a very short period without a caffeine "hit," even as simple as a child missing their lunchtime or after-school soft drink.
Caffeine Blues by Stephen Cherniske MS, page 291

In 2001, for instance, Coca-Cola paid Warner Brothers $150 million for the global marketing rights for the first Harry Potter movie. Pleas to J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, to stop the use of her characters to promote soft drinks to children were unsuccessful.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 301

Although pouring-rights contracts are only one component of an arsenal of food company marketing techniques, issues related to societal inequities are central to the significance of these contracts as a public health concern. Congressional reluctance to favor children's health above the rights of soft drink producers is a direct result of election laws that require legislators to obtain corporate funding for their campaigns. Like most corporations, soft drink companies donate funds to local and national candidates. More rational campaign financing laws might permit Congress to take positions based on public good rather than private greed.
Food Politics by Marion Nestle, page 218

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) started an organization called "Kids Against Junk Foods" to raise health awareness among children. The CSPI has targeted major corporations in the fight to protect children. An example is the "Save Harry" campaign to protest Coke's exclusive global marketing rights to the Harry Potter movie.
Food Fight by Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen, page 117

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